Wednesday briefing: Inside the battle to contain – and capitalise on – artificial intelligence

Good morning. Does artificial intelligence (AI) pose an “extinction-level threat” to humankind or is it a remarkable “force for good” that could develop new drugs and gene therapies for previously incurable diseases (and make big tech firms billions of dollars along the way)?

Scientists, mathematicians and politicians from around the world will next week battle it out at the world’s first AI summit at Bletchley Park, the Buckinghamshire country estate where Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code that helped end the second world war.

Spoiler alert: the answer will almost certainly be “it’s both”, says today’s special guest, the Guardian’s global technology editor, Dan Milmo. But there will be an almighty fight over it as two of the three “godfathers of AI” are warning that AI could become so powerful and autonomous it could usurp humans. The third says the others have “dramatically overestimated the threat of an accidental AI takeover”, and introducing the regulation they want would only “slow down the progress of knowledge and science”.

The ringmaster will be Rishi Sunak, who convened the summit as part of his mission to turn the UK into a “new Silicon Valley”. More after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Israel-Hamas war | The UN secretary general has called for an immediate ceasefire to end “epic suffering” in the Gaza Strip. António Guterres portrayed the 7 October atrocities by Hamas as a reaction to “56 years of suffocating occupation” – leading Israel’s UN envoy, Gilad Erdan, to call on Guterres to resign immediately for justifying “terrorism and murder”.

  2. Europe | One person died and four were missing after a British cargo ship sank off the coast of Germany following a collision in the North Sea.

  3. Cost of living | Britons are planning to party at home and save on trips out this Christmas as the cost-of-living crisis continues to put a dampener on celebrations.

  4. US news | Lawyers for Donald Trump are raising new challenges to the federal election subversion case against him, telling a judge that the indictment should be dismissed because it violates the former president’s free speech rights and represents a vindictive prosecution.

  5. Health | The average number of abortions performed each month in the US rose in the year after the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade and allowed more than a dozen states to ban the procedure, according to data from a research group backed by the Society of Family Planning.

In depth: ‘Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority’

If you use facial recognition software on your mobile phone, you’re already using AI.If you use facial recognition software on your mobile phone, you’re already using AI. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

You’ll probably use AI today without even realising it. In fact, you might have already done so if you’re reading this newsletter on an iPhone: Apple’s FaceID technology that unlocks phones is powered by AI.

It’s far too complicated for me to really explain. Luckily, CNet has a handy explanation: “The phone lights up your face, fires out 30,000 invisible infrared dots that highlight your features and create a rough pattern, takes pictures of those dots with the infrared camera and then decides whether the picture looks like you.” The chance of fooling it is one in a million, which Apple says is a vast improvement on one in 50,000 for fooling the fingerprint lock used on previous models.

All those “smart” devices in your house – like thermostats or Alexa – are driven by AI. So is Google search, the suggested finishes to sentences when you type emails, and, of course, chatGPT.

Unstoppable ‘frontier AI’

So far, not so scary. But the scary stuff could be not too far off, the experts warn, as the technology behind AI is developing at a staggering pace. The most serious dangers are posed by “frontier AI”, which is defined as “highly capable foundation models that could possess dangerous capabilities sufficient to pose severe risks to public safety”.

What this actually means, Dan says, is the technology being used to create dangerous things, and humans being unable to pull the plug on. “There is a fear about so-called ‘God-like’ AI. These are systems that avoid human control, and would be able to replicate themselves and potentially make decisions at the expense of human interests.”

Examples of potentially dangerous frontier AI technology include designing new biochemical weapons or creating highly sophisticated cyber-attacks. In the immediate term, there are also concerns that AI image and text generators could mass-produce disinformation that could be used to disrupt elections.

‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’

The people worrying most about the threat of AI – and telling us and our governments to worry about it – are the very people who helped create it. “There are big parallels with J Robert Oppenheimer,” says Dan. “He’s called the father of the atomic bomb for his role in creating it, but went on to campaign against its use for decades.”

In this case, it’s two computer scientists – Prof Yoshua Bengio and Dr Geoffrey Hinton – who helped create AI for which they won the prestigious Turing prize in 2019 and earned the “godfathers of AI” nickname. (There is a third godfather, Yann LeCun, but more of him later.)

Bengio and Hinton were among 350 leading AI executives, researchers and engineers who released a one-sentence statement warning that: “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

That warning was preceded by an open letter from the Future of Life Institute, signed by the likes of Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, calling for a six-month pause in giant AI experiments.

Those interventions kicked off the public and political debate that led to Sunak convening the AI summit, expected to be attended by the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, alongside the bosses of the world’s leading technology firms, as well as top scientists.

More regulations on sandwich shops than AI companies

Bletchley Park in 1943, where global leaders and AI experts will meet next week.Bletchley Park in 1943, where global leaders and AI experts will meet next week. Photograph: Bletchley Park Trust/SSPL/Getty Images

Bengio fears his life’s work could lead to devastating consequences if “bad actors” get hold of AI. “It might be military, it might be terrorists, it might be somebody very angry, psychotic. And so if it’s easy to programme these AI systems to ask them to do something very bad, this could be very dangerous,” he told the BBC. “If they’re smarter than us, then it’s hard for us to stop these systems or to prevent damage.”

He is among 23 leading AI experts who published proposals this week calling on governments to understand and regulate AI systems and warned it would be “utterly reckless” to continue to allow the technology to develop unchecked.

“There are more regulations on sandwich shops than there are on AI companies,” said Stuart Russell, professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, who is another of the signatories.

Demis Hassabis, the British chief executive of Google’s AI unit, today said: “We must take the risks of AI as seriously as other major global challenges, like climate change. We can’t afford the same delay with AI.”

However LeCun, the third godfather of AI who is now chief AI scientist at Facebook owner Meta, will argue at the summit that regulation will stifle competition and give big tech companies too much power. “Regulating research and development in AI is incredibly counterproductive,” he told the FT. “They want regulatory capture under the guise of AI safety.”

LeCun said the idea that AI could exterminate humans was “preposterous”, and that people had been conditioned by science fiction including the Terminator films to believe that intelligent machines would take control if they became smarter than humans.

“Intelligence has nothing to do with a desire to dominate. It’s not even true for humans,” he said. “If it were true that the smartest humans wanted to dominate others, then Albert Einstein and other scientists would have been both rich and powerful, and they were neither.”

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What else we’ve been reading

A sign in Leed directing people to a food bank.A sign in Leed directing people to a food bank. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

  • Poverty has become so rampant in British society that we now use Victorian language to describe a situation that 3.8 million people are living in, Frances Ryan writes. Nimo

  • Amy Pohl suffered a medical accident that left her with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). Pohl speaks spoke with Paula Cocozza about surviving such intense pain she wanted “to cut my arm off”, her recovery and her new life as a TikTok star. Nyima Jobe, newsletters team

  • Miranda Bryant’s dispatch from Reykjavík highlights why women, including the prime minister, have decided to strike in Iceland. Nimo

  • London was the home of legendary fashion designers such as the late Vivienne Westwood, and the city has been a hub for creativity. But Lauren Cochrane explores the new challenges facing emerging and independent fashion designers, amid fears that only talent with independent wealth will be able to flourish. Nyima

  • When Andrew Cuomo resigned in 2021 after it was found he had sexually harassed 11 women, nine of which were his employees, his inner circle tumbled out of political life with him, including his ruthless right hand, Melissa DeRosa. Now DeRosa has written a memoir that is both a furious rejoinder to her enemies and a full-throated defence of her former boss. New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister writes about how this book reveals how power operates. Nimo

Sport

England’s Ben Stokes.Cricketer Ben Stokes. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Reuters

Football | In the Champions League, Gabriel Jesus’s sublime goal and assist gave Arsenal a vital 2-1 victory over Sevilla. An André Onana penalty save and a Harry Maguire header into goal rescued Manchester United with a 1-0 win against Copenhagen.

Cricket | Ben Stokes (above) has turned down the chance to sign one of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s inaugural multi-year central contracts, committing for just a single year. In all, three players have agreed three-year deals and a further 15 have signed two-year contracts, offered for the first time this year as the ECB seeks to ward off the rival appeal of limited-over franchises.

Cycling | Geraint Thomas is hoping to represent Great Britain in his fifth Olympic Games. The 37-year-old 2018 Tour de France winner told Donald McRae that as long as he’s still enjoying it, and his family are happy, he’ll continue racing: “In the grand scheme of things, it’s two more years, and then I’ve got the rest of my life to be at home.”

The front pages

Guardian front page, Wednesday 25 October 2023 Photograph: Guardian

The Guardian leads with António Guterres, the UN secretary general, contentiously calling for an “immediate ceasefire to end ‘epic suffering’ in Gaza”. “UN defence of Hamas is a tragedy, says Israel” – that’s the Daily Telegraph reporting calls for Guterres to step down. “Anger as UN boss attacks Israel over Gaza crisis” says the Daily Mail while the i has “UN chief warns of ‘violations’ in Gaza – provoking fury from Israel”. The Financial Times goes with “UN chief denounces ‘clear violations’ of international law in Gaza conflict”. Others like the Times focus on the human story from a day in the war: “My nightmare goes on cries freed hostage, 85”. “Free Israeli hostage: My hell in spider’s web of Hamas tunnels” says the Sun, while the Daily Express highlights the “Peace gesture by freed hostage in the face of evil” – Yochi Lifshitz grasped her captor’s hand and said “Shalom” (peace) as they parted. An “Exclusive Mirror probe” bedecks the Daily Mirror’s front page. The headline is “Killer Noye & the jungle millions”. The kicker “North Sea tragedy” sits above the splash story in the Metro: “Brit cargo ship sinks in collision”.

Today in Focus

A couple and their dog are rescued by coastguards from a street flooded by Storm Babet in Brechin, north-east Scotland Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of Storm Babet

Thousands of homes across Scotland and the Midlands have been flooded in recent days. Jessica Murray reports from Chesterfield

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson on Rishi Sunak’s big year – cartoon Illustration: Martin Rowson/Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Workers loading milk on to electric delivery van in Blackpool.Workers loading milk on to electric delivery van in Blackpool. Photograph: Chris Hellier/Corbis/Getty Images

You might believe the electric vehicle is only a thing of the present and future, but battery-powered vehicles have been around since the Victorian era – and they came in many different forms. From the electric pram to an electrical milk float, one-third of all cars in the US were electric by 1900. Emma Beddington presents the amazing, but frustrating history of the electrical vehicle, with pictures selected by Sarah Gilbert that feature a bunch of men with moustaches. The piece highlights the challenges such as battery issues and lack of infrastructure that faced early electrical vehicles. Back then, though, drivers had the luxury of “20 miles for 5p and emissions-free roads”, something that is a distant dream in 2023.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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